It appears that the Pentagon's propaganda outlet in Central Asia is going out of business. The recently passed U.S. defense budget bill eliminated funding for the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a program that published a variety of regional "news" websites, including Central Asia Online. American newspaper USA Today, which has done a lot of investigations into the TRWI, reports:
"None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for fiscal year 2014 for the Department of Defense may be obligated or expended for the Trans Regional Web Initiative," the annual defense law says. It makes an exception for a $2 million payment to pay for the termination of the program by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and to transfer some capabilities to other parts of the military.
EurasiaNet's David Trilling wrote the definitive piece on Central Asia Online for Foreign Policy in 2011, noting that its Uzbekistan coverage "has shown a disturbing tendency to downplay the autocracy's rights abuses and uncritically promote its claims of terrorist threats." He added that the website sometimes "downplays abuses even contrary to concerns expressed by the U.S. government.":
In discussions of Eurasian security, "2014" has become a byword for a turning point in the region. WIth the planned pullout of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan, Central Asia (and to a lesser extent the Caucasus) is entering an uncertain future. Predicting the future is obviously a futile endeavor, but for the sake of discussion, here's what The Bug Pit expects to be covering over the next 12 months:
1. Nagorno Karabakh. This is a no-brainer. There were some positive signs toward the end of 2013, with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan meeting for the first time in two years. Nevertheless, the cross-border skirmishes continued, and the large forces that have made things between the two countries so tense -- like Azerbaijan's rapid military buildup and each country's dehumanization of the people on the other side of the border -- have not abated. So the renewal of conflict seems only a matter of time.
2. The Pamirs. After Tajikistan's central government suffered a humiliating defeat in its attempt to bring the region under its control in the July 2012 military operation in Khorog, it has been the conventional wisdom that the government will eventually try again. Now the presidential elections have passed, and tensions have risen again.
Georgian Mi-8 helicopters perform during recent military drills. (photo: Ministry of Defense, Georgia)
Georgia is planning to "get rid" of its Soviet-legacy helicopter fleet and replace it with Western models, the country's defense minister, Irakli Alasania, told reporters at an end-of-the-year press conference in Tbilisi. From a Georgia Ministry of Defense press release:
According to Irakli Alasania, Defence Ministry plans to get rid of the Soviet, Russian military transport and attack helicopters. "We are planning to renovate and develop the U.S. utility helicopter fleet. We have negotiations with other countries and some opportunities also appeared after my visit to the Republic of France."
Defence Minister explained the reason for replacement of the Soviet helicopter fleet by the U.S. ones. "It is very expensive to maintain the Soviet helicopters. Procurement of the spare parts is problematic and in most cases it is practically impossible to get this service without corruption deals. Considering all the above-mentioned facts we took a hard but right and logical decision," declared Irakli Alasania.
Georgia's armed forces currently operate Mi-24 attack helicopters and Mi-8 utility helicopters of Soviet origin, as well as American UH-1H utility helicopters. It had already been announced that Georgia and the U.S. were discussing further utility helicopter deals, but Alasania's statement suggests a much more ambitious agenda.
The U.S.'s foreign policy panjandrums have determined what are the most likely global crises facing the U.S. in 2014 and have found that the Caucasus and Central Asia pose almost no threat to U.S. interests.
The Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.'s most prestigious foreign policy think tank, has released its annual Preventative Priorities Survey for 2014. The survey, CFR says, "seeks to help policymakers choose among competing conflict prevention demands by offering what is essentially a risk assessment of the United States’ geopolitical environment over the next twelve months." It does so by first crowdsourcing a list of 30 potential crisis scenarios, then polling experts and policymakers as to how likely the threat of a crisis is, and how much of a threat to U.S. interests the crisis would be. The only Eurasian scenario to make the top 30 is "an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh," and that was ranked in the lowest possible tier as both a low risk of happening and posing a minor threat to U.S. interests.
The survey also asked the respondents to suggest other possible scenarios, and of the handful that CFR said were mentioned more than others included some more Eurasian scenarios: "rising political instability in Russia," "possible Russian intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states," and "rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan."
With a combination of the kitsch of Eurovision and the lofty sentiments of pan-Turkic brotherhood, the Turkic-speaking world’s first international song contest, Turkvision, made its debut. Azerbaijan won the inaugural contest, besting 23 other competitors from across the Turkic world – from the powerhouse host Turkey to tiny Shoria, a region of 14,000 in western Siberia.
Obviously spooked by developments in Ukraine, Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, held a roundtable discussion discussing how the organization can better fight against the "color revolutions" that, in the mind of many in Moscow, are orchestrated by Western governments.
Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on the meeting, which took place last week:
Participants came to the conclusion that "Western enemies of Russia" are manipulating international election monitoring organizations, actively influencing the minds of internet users, creating a distorted picture of the mood of society through non-governmental organizations and the media. They advised the CSTO to engage in the production of "instruments of counterpropaganda" and that Russia should not be afraid to act on the internal political life of neighboring countries.
The CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, was at the event, and spoke in somewhat purple prose about the danger that Russia's allies now face:
One is struck by the perfidy of the organizers and leaders of these revolutionary transformations, who pursue purely mercenary goals and do not shy away from using any means to attain them, including those out of the bounds of legal and ethical norms... One is shocked by the cynicism of the scene, when a high-ranking official of a respected government, devoted to democratic values, publicly flirts with a radical nationalist and inveterate anti-Semite.
The number one topic of conversation among Washington's small band of Central Asia watchers -- and the much larger band of Central Asian Washington watchers -- is about what will happen to U.S. policy in the region after the U.S. pulls its forces out of Afghanistan. U.S. policy in Central Asia over the last decade has been so dominated by the war in Afghanistan that's it's hard to imagine any more what the U.S. interest in the region might be absent that. And a couple of recent discussions in Washington provide a view both of the public and the behind-the-scenes conversations that are going on about this -- and highlighted the huge divide between what the U.S. says officially about its future policies toward Central Asia and what it is really thinking about.
One discussion, at the think tank New America Foundation, featured newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar discussing "Regional Connectivity in South-Central Asia." As that title implies, it was all about the U.S.'s New Silk Road Initiative. The U.S.'s New Silk Road has taken enough beatings in this blog and elsewhere that there is little need to kick it when it's down. (Still, another takedown piece was published recently by Eugene Imas in The Diplomat, "The New Silk Road to Nowhere.") But one part of Sumar's presentation stood out:
Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his December 19 press conference. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Georgians wanted Russian soldiers to "take" then-president Mikheil Saakashvili during the 2008 war over South Ossetia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
During his marathon press conference Thursday, Putin was asked by a reporter from Georgian television station Rustavi-2 about Russia-Georgia relations. As he did with many questions, Putin took the opportunity to hold forth at some length, and he described the very warm feelings he had for Georgian people, and that Georgians and Russians have for one another generally. Most intriguingly, he suggested that Georgians were rooting for Russia to defeat Georgia, or at least Saakashvili:
Even during the most difficult time, when fighting was underway in the Caucasus [reference to the August, 2008 war], relations with the Georgian people were very good. And it was confirmed even during those difficult days and hours and demonstrated in attitude of Georgians themselves towards Russia. Don’t remember if I have ever said it publicly, but in one of the towns a grandpa approached our soldiers and told him: ‘What do you want here? What are you looking for here? Go over there – Tbilisi and take Mishka [referring to then President Mikheil Saakashvili]’.”
“You know we had losses among our military servicemen. Aircraft was downed, a pilot ejected and landed somewhere; a Georgian babushka approached and told him: ‘Come here son’; she took him and fed him. Then he was sent towards the Russian military."
The agreement, signed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovich on Tuesday, includes provisions for "development of the social-economic sphere of Sevastopol," the Crimean city where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based. It also provides for the "resolution of problems of taxation" and customs control for equipment for the Russian forces aimed at "limiting border, customs, and other types of government control.
But probably the most important provision related to the Black Sea Fleet is that the two sides agree to "start negotiations on preparation of a bilateral agreement on replacement of weaponry and military equipment" of the fleet. This has been the most contentious issue between the two sides, whether Russia will be allowed improve the level of equipment for the fleet or simply replace old ships with newer versions of the same class. Russia has wanted to expand the fleet, while Ukraine wants Russia only to be able to replace like with like. Although there aren't specifics (at least in the version of the agreement publicly released), Russian military expert Dmitry Gorenburg told The Bug Pit that just the agreement to start discussing replacement of equipment is "potentially very significant" and that an agreement "would probably create an environment where subsequent presidents wouldn't be able to prevent replacement."
A sale of Turkish howitzers to Azerbaijan seems to be back on after the German company that made the weapon's engine blocked the sale because of restrictions related to its frozen conflict with Armenia.
Deliveries of Turkey's T-155 howitzer to Azerbaijan will start next year, the cannon's manufacturer told Azerbaijan news agency APA. But it's not yet clear who will provide the engine, given that Germany refused. Much speculation has centered around Ukraine, but another interesting possibility is Japan. Last month, a Japanese newspaper reported that Turkey and Japan were cooperating on an engine for Turkey's Altay tank, which had the same Azerbaijan-export problem with the same German enginemaker, MTU.
"[The joint development of defense equipment] is one issue that will be discussed within the relationship between Japan and Turkey," Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said at a press conference last week, following which Japan's Asahi Shimbun reported, based on anonymous sources, that the cooperation being considered by Japan and Turkey involves a joint venture between Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and a Turkish company to manufacture engines for tanks....
“If Germany wanted to introduce limitations on Turkey's exports regarding the engine, then Turkey may have wished to cooperate with Japan,” Erdoğan Karakuş, a retired three-star general, told Today's Zaman. Noting that the costs of production for Altay would be too high for Turkey if Turkey cannot export the tank, he underlined that the “contribution of the Altay project to the local defense industry would also remain rather limited in such a case.”